That Spark of Inspiration
By: Anne Elisabeth Stengl
The first germ of an idea that became the novel Starflower came to me when I was slogging my way through a very difficult read: Phantastes by George MacDonald.
Don’t get me wrong! I love George MacDonald's fairy tales. The Light Princess, Photogen and Nycteris, and The Princess and the Goblin will always hold special places in my heart. But Phantastes is a mind-bender if ever there was one. I always felt as if just when I was just on the verge of understanding what he was trying to say, he'd throw something totally random into the game and change all the rules on me.
But I kept on reading because, despite all the bizarre twists and turns that left me baffled, I kept coming upon little moments of brilliance, sparkling jewels in the labyrinthine mine. A phrase, a thought, or a scene that would strike me to the core with beauty and truth.
One such scene is to be found near the end of this strange novel. The hero and the knight he serves come together to a grove of worship. Men and women dressed in holiday attire are gathered there, watching the approach of a line of white-robed priests. The knight, looking on, declares that it is all so solemn that something very good must be near. But the hero, his squire, cannot shake a conviction that evil lurks nearby, closer than anyone gathered realizes.
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The scene continues into one of ritualistic worship, and it is at last revealed that those gathered in the sacred grove are offering human sacrifices to a monstrous wolf lurking in the shadows of a decayed throne. This monster had become their god, and they worshipped it even to the point of death!
It was a deliciously terrifying scene, full of many layers of meaning which I could not then understand. Even now I return to that scene every so often and read it again, trying to understand just a little more of what George MacDonald was attempting to communicate.
And the seeds that eventually grew into Starflower were planted. I knew I wanted to write a story with the "Maiden and Wolf" archetype.
Other stories played important roles in influencing this novel of mine. One reader, having just finished reading Starflower, wrote and asked me if I was inspired by C.S. Lewis's fabulous retelling of the "Cupid and Psyche" legend, Till We Have Faces. While this novel was not an overt influence on my novel, I realized that it probably had left an impact on me when I read it years ago, an impact that affected my writing in surprising ways.
Another major influence on this novel was one of my favorite poems, "The Hound of Heaven" by Frances Thompson. I reencountered this poem when partway through the first draft of Starflower, and realized that it contained within its lines many of the powerful themes I wanted to communicate in my story. So I incorporated not only the Hound itself, but also many lines and poetic beats from the poem into my novel. Consider it a tribute to Frances Thompson's powerful work.
Other influences were probably slighter than these. My hero, Eanrin, was inspired at least in part by Diana Wynne Jones's fabulously self-centered hero in Howl's Moving Castle. And the lovely fairy tale style of Robin McKinley's narratives will always be a style to which I aspire.
Ultimately, every novel I write is made up of the novels I read that touch me most deeply. It's all part of how I, as novelist, link hands with those novelists who went before me. And I can only hope that someday my work will ignite a spark of inspiration in a novelist to come, so that someday, when asked what motivated her to write her most recent work, she will say, "I read this book called Starflower by Anne Elisabeth Stengl, and one of the scenes really struck me . . . ."
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